The Imaginary Curriculum: Summer Reads, the U.S. History Edition

I just got back from Maryland, where I spent a whirlwind weekend doing Very Important Paperwork Things, running a 10 mile race I totally failed to train for (meaning I ran some and walked more), and visiting my baby nephew Oliver Patrick Lloyd, who obviously is going to grow up to be a statesman with a name like that. In honor of my future-statesman nephew, this edition of the Imaginary Curriculum will focus on United States History.

Now, I should tell you that I never got particularly excited about U.S. history in school. This will probably shock anyone who knows anything about what I write, which tends to focus on Americana, but I really was always more interested in European history. On the other hand, I sort of thought I understood the basics: colonization, independence, the Civil War, World War II (I never was really all that clear about WWI). Enough to pass the tests, anyway. I just never found them particularly exciting.

Which brings us to the books below. Now, I should also tell you that I have, in some cases, cited a connection to U.S. history strictly in order to carry the focus outward into the world. But I think that’s defensible. We should really try to look outward more often, I think. With that said, here we go.

The War of 1812 and Founding of the U.S. Navy: Six Frigates by Ian W. Toll

Reading this book is like reading Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin books. It’s exciting, it touches on historical figures from Thomas Jefferson to Stephen Decatur and renders them so wonderfully, and the maritime battles read cinematically. It’s just an exciting read, start to finish. There are books I only pick up because I need them for research and then find I can’t put down. This book was one of them.

If you are like me, you probably don’t remember much about the War of 1812 except the year. Britain and France were still embroiled in the Napoleonic Wars, and the British Navy was stretched thin. As the wars stretched on, British ships began to stop American merchant ships and take by force any sailors aboard who appeared to have been English-born before the American colonies had won their independence, and pressing them into service. Often a captain took the number of men he needed, regardless of when they’d been born. Of course, from the Americans’ perspective, an American citizen was an American citizen, regardless of his or her birth.

The second thing that prompted the U.S. to declare war was the wartime practice of combatants trying to prevent neutral countries from trading with their enemies. This seems pretty straightforward, but in reality it resulted in blockades of both enemy ports and neutral ones. The United States began to discuss the merits of entering a maritime war.

This is where it gets interesting, because that at the time, the U.S. did not have a navy. And many of the country’s leaders didn’t want one, or really any kind of a standing military at all; among other reasons, it was thought that having a standing military might tempt the government to use it to involve itself in the Europe’s endless squabbles.

In the end, the government settled on a compromise: they would build six–count ’em, six–frigates, and that would be the United States Navy. Aided by the merchant shipping fleet and whatever privateers they could rally to their cause, those six frigates, crewed mostly by volunteers, would go up against the might of the British Navy and her eight or nine hundred ships.

(Extra credit: read Master and Commander by Patrick O’Brian. Apart from being brilliant, exciting, hilarious fiction, the Aubrey/Maturin books really demonstrate the world in which the United States came into being and the pressures that caused the War of 1812 to occur.)

The Civil War: Chickamauga and An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge by Ambrose Bierce; This Republic of Suffering by Drew Gilpin Faust

There is not enough time right now for me to tell you how much I love Ambrose Bierce and all the reasons why. Suffice to say that he fought in the Civil War and is among the most eloquent writers on the subject of the horrors soldiers witnessed. It’s a bizarre thing, reading Bierce’s Civil War fiction. You know  he’s making stuff up, but at the same time, you understand that in an equally real way, he’s not making anything up at all.

Bierce, a master of suspense and a master of horror, is just as frightening when he writes about the realities of war as when he writes about the supernatural. In Chickamauga, for instance, a six year-old boy wandering away from his family house encounters the battered train of Union soldiers retreating from battle:

They were men. They crept upon their hands and knees. They used their hands only, dragging their legs. They used their knees only, their arms hanging idle at their sides. They strove to rise to their feet, but fell prone in the attempt. They did nothing naturally, and nothing alike, save only to advance foot by foot in the same direction.

Recognizing them as men, however, he isn’t frightened by them. He marches at the head of the column as their leader, blissful and not understanding the horror he is witnessing–until the end of the story. An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge–it’s hard to talk much about this story without giving spoilers, but I will tell you that it contains a shocking description of the physical experience of being hung by the neck from a bridge.

Rather than focusing on the history of the battles that gave rise to the events of the stories, they bring forward the horror, the perversity and insanity and senselessness of war. People die in Bierce stories that shouldn’t, just as people die in wartime that shouldn’t. Things seem unreal, unfamiliar. The world stops being recognizable as the world you know. These stories are not about the politics that paved the way to the Civil War, they are about what happens to combatants.

The Republic of Suffering deals explicitly with the experience of death in the Civil War and how society viewed it. It’s a perfect companion to reading Ambrose Bierce on the subject; Faust argues that, in a time when hundreds of thousands of people, young and old, military and civilian, were dying in such numbers that there were neither coffins nor ground enough to hold them, the survivors were comforted by the idea of the “good death” and the hope that their loved ones died at peace, reconciled with God, and with words of hope and messages of love on their lips. Bierce, of course, tells stories of the kinds of deaths that survivors feared their loved ones at war might really face: deaths that made no sense, that offered no hope, that were horrifying, painful and without dignity.

Wow. I just realized how pessimistic those picks are. Sorry about that. Let’s see if I can be a bit more cheering with the next couple.

Post-Reconstruction America: 1877 by Michael A. Bellesiles

Well, 1877 is actually not going to cheer you up. Sorry about that, too. I read this book as research for The Broken Lands, and as a result I changed the date of the book, moving it back from the mid 1880’s to 1877. All I really remembered about Reconstruction was that it was a tense period during which the U.S. stitched itself painfully back together after the Civil War. I really had no idea how painful that stitching-up was, and how close the country came to falling apart in 1877.

There were lynchings. There was a contested presidential election that took months to resolve (shocking, no?). There were strikes resulting in violence. There was rampant unemployment. There was a “tramp scare” and calls from church pulpits to resist the urge to give charity; people were urged not to hire or give work to vagrants, even if those vagrants wanted to work (and many of them were tramping around the country explicitly in search of employment). Reading about 1877 it really seems that the country went a little bit out of its mind. Certainly it was still in Civil War mode, and the country was supposed to have put that behind it. Instead, the Union nearly fell apart again.

I really need some cheerful history, don’t I? Let’s move on to World War One.

World War One: Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman; Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld; Over Here by David Kennedy

You’re wondering how I’m going to make World War One cheerful, aren’t you? Prepare to discover that you can laugh out loud while learning how batshit crazy the German mentality was in 1914. Added benefit: if you, like me, are married to a man with Prussian blood who always insists that he’s right even in the face of a loud and frustrated wife with overwhelming evidence that suggests he is not right, you might also get some insight into his particular insanity.

Guns of August is a history of the beginning of World War One. This is always where I got confused as a student. Some wars are easily reducible to a single image that fixes them in your mind. This one…well, an Archduke got assassinated, and that turned into a World War? I always found that difficult to swallow. But I guess it isn’t the thing to tell a high school class that Kaiser Wilhelm was a little crazy and Germany, thanks to military thinkers and philosophers like Schlieffen and Trietschke and Nietzche, actually really did have this idea that a country validated itself through aggressive military action–that increasing its power was its most important duty, and that moreover that Germany had a historic mission to spread its kultur throughout the world. It just sounds…I don’t know, it doesn’t sound like the real world. It sounds crazy. Like…like Hitler crazy, minus the ethnic cleansing craziness. And there’s a reason. Hitler didn’t happen in a vacuum, see? So that’s interesting, because crazy is always fascinating.

And then there’s the comedy of errors that was the communication between, evidently, everyone who spoke to anyone during the first half of 1914, from politicians to ambassadors to military commanders. Stuff on the level of the following:

General (phones Field Marshal): I say, I’m looking at this line of Germans coming from this direction and there’s a lot of them. Like, a LOT. Please advise.

Field Marshal: No, General, you’re mistaken. Our intelligence says there aren’t any Germans where you are. You’re just there to keep the Germans from showing up there. Sit tight and look tough.

General: But…but sir, the Germans did show up here. I’m looking at them. Shall I attack?

Field Marshal: You must be mistaken. There can’t be any Germans there. We know where the Germans are, and it’s nowhere near where you are.

General: You understand I’m literally looking at them, right?

Field Marshal: Those are probably just cows, General. Do I need to replace you with someone who can tell the difference between Germans and cows? By God, I will if I have to, sir!

I’m not kidding. Well, about the cows, maybe, but that’s it. But really, apart from beautifully and clearly walking the readers through the history and the personalities that brought the world into this most deadly of conflicts, Tuchman tells the story in prose that is alternatively beautiful (for instance, the first paragraph of the book) and hilarious (for instance, her characterization of the players involved, when they deserve it). Here, for instance, is the opening of the chapter entitled “Outbreak.”

“Some damned foolish thing in the Balkans,” Bismarck had predicted, would ignite the next war. The assassination of the Austiran heir apparent, Archduke Franz Ferdinand…satisfied this condition. Austria-Hungary, with the bellicose frivolity of senile empires, determined to use the occasion to absorb Serbia.

Best of all, reading this book you really can forget that you know what’s going to happen. It’s actually exciting.

Now, Leviathan: yes. Yes, I’m going to do it. I’m going to suggest reading Tuchman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning history of the lead-up to WWI alongside Westerfeld’s steampunk alt-history reimagining of the same period. Do it. Seriously. Here’s my thinking.

Yes, there are some major departures from historical fact (namely, the existence of an heir to the Archduke and the existence of bio-engineered technology on the side of the Allies and the amazing “klanker” machines on the part of the German-Austrian alliance). However, those departures, by and large, serve to render accessible (and exciting) the reality of the time: the major players, their twisted alliances and fears. In an early chapter, Tuchman says that “Europe was a heap of swords piled as delicately as jackstraws; one could not be pulled out without moving the others.” That is the Europe that Westerfeld paints so beautifully.

Also, while the bizarre technologies of Leviathan’s combatants might seem completely out of left field if you aren’t a reader of speculative fiction, remember (and this is a big, big important thing) that WWI was the first really modern war. Zeppelins and airplanes were used for the first time. It was the first major use of modern guns and of machine guns, but in the early part of the war, certain of the combatants were still insisting that the only honorable way to wage war was with bayonets. Bayonets! The French refused to convert their army to field drab because of a sentimental attachment to the traditional red trousers their army had always worn. Communications were by telephone and by officers driving from one place to another to deliver orders verbally.

Warfare was changing even as WWI was being fought, and even the generals who were waging it (mostly veterans and resistant to change) weren’t clear on what their enemies had up their sleeves. It’s hard to really imagine how unlike this war was to what we are used to imagining, or to what the combatants were accustomed to. So Westerfeld’s fantastic weaponry is, perhaps, a really useful way to illuminate that strangeness. Also it’s just a brilliant book and I wish everyone would read it.

Now, a brief stop over Stateside. So far the U.S. has not entered the war. Over Here chronicles the state of things in the United States as the country’s leaders, who at first tried desperately to stay out of the war, were drawn into the conflict, and, most interesting to me right now, the way they managed to get the country behind the war effort. Reading this now, it’s kind of shocking to read about the manipulations the government used on the citizenry; the tactics seem to be just about as subtle as repeated whacks to the head with a red, white, and blue baseball bat. One account has a government speaker standing up and saying to an assembled audience that anyone who couldn’t loan a dollar or so a week to the government at such-and-such percent interest (the cost of a war bond), well, that fellow was a friend of the Germans and didn’t deserve to be called American. Political discourse at its finest.

But there are positive things, too–for instance, unlike its allies in Europe, the U.S. refused to go on a rationing system at the outset of its involvement in the war, believing that it was a better strategy to get the voluntary participation of the people in the war effort, and that Americans would rise to the challenge. I like the idea of that.

So that’s my (incredibly long) Imaginary Curriculum post for this week. See, kids? History is fun. But seriously. I’ve got a soapbox around here somewhere…oh. There it is.

I picked these books because I truly loved them and found them engaging, exciting reads, and each one gave me an insight into something I had previously not been familiar with. But as I was writing this up, it became clear to me that they also spoke to me in another way. Maybe it’s that we’re coming up on an election year (ask my husband how much bourbon it took for me to get through the GOP debate last week).

Anyhow, it’s easy to look back with nostalgia at the early years of the American experiment, to point to the glowing figures of the past, the grand men and women who live now in portraits and statues and through signatures on Significant Documents. It’s easy to romanticize our past and forget that most of what most of us know of it is what we got in textbooks, which at their best can afford to paint history only in the broadest strokes and at their worst sometimes lie. We hear history invoked by politicians and pundits who don’t always know what they’re talking about and sometimes lie and just hope that we aren’t going to notice. (Really, Sarah Palin? If there’s one place not to try and talk out your left ear about Paul Revere, it’s in Boston.)

It’s important to me, in the times that I live in, to be reminded that a) the past of my country is paved with stumbling blocks, not smooth stones and b) we can learn from those stumbling blocks. We’d better–we did the paving. But especially it’s important now, in 2011, to re-learn our own history. We’ve had contested elections that wound up being bought with compromises before. Politicians have manipulated us with patriotism before. And we should know that, setting aside all questions about the merits of any given war, during war, all death is senseless. We have seen all of this before. We have just conveniently forgotten the details.

We need to remember.


One Comment

  1. I have been trying to keep up with your curriculum friend! I have Guns of August, which I got from my dad. I am really enjoying it…and I am not much into reading about war outside of fictionalized novels such as “The Things We Carried” and “All Quiet on the Western Front.” But I am finding Guns of August entertaining and engaging (maybe its because a woman wrote it and I love the details that she includes).

    I am still reading through your other list…which is great.

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